This guide aims to be the most in-depth resource available on private search engines. For this 2021 update, we’ve examined the best private search engines, discussed how to keep your data safe when searching, and flagged some search engines we think you should avoid.
In today’s world, search engines are a necessity to find what you’re looking for. But the help search engines provide often comes at a price: your privacy.
It is sad to say, but most of the big search engines today serve as data collection tools for advertising companies. They collect your private data and use it to make money with targeted ads. This is a booming industry where your data ends up in the hands of third parties and you are the product.
Here is the information being collected by some of the larger (not private) search engines:
- Source IP address
- User agent
- Unique identifier (stored in browser cookies)
- Search queries
As you may know, the items you enter into a search engine can disclose highly personal information about you. Things like as medical conditions, employment status, financial information, political beliefs, and other private details. This data can be collected, stored, and linked to detailed digital profiles which can even contain your real identity. The only way to ensure that your data is safe is to keep it out of the hands of the data collectors. To do that, you need to use a private search engine.
In this latest iteration of our guide to the best private search engines, we do another deep dive into the world of private search engines, while also covering some FAQs and best practices for keeping your data safe and private. Here’s an overview of what we’ll cover:
- Best private search engines for 2021
- “Private” search engines with ad-tech owners
- How do private search engines make money?
- Are US-based search engines safe?
- How to keep your searches private
- Considerations when choosing a private search engine
All recommendations in this guide are my own opinions based on extensive testing and research.
The best private search engines
Finding the best private search engine for your needs is a subjective process. Your circumstances and goals are unique, meaning there’s no one-size-fits-all. Things to consider include:
- Where is the service based?
- Where does it get its search results?
- Can you run your own instance?
- Are there mobile apps?
In a perfect world, a search engine would give you great results while also respecting your privacy. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world. Any of the private search engines in this guide could be the best solution for you. But you will need to test drive the ones that look the best to you to see which is really the best fit. Before we start, there is one issue you need to be aware of:
Metasearch vs search: Most private search engines are technically metasearch engines. While a search engine crawls the internet and gathers its own results, a metasearch engine pulls its search results from search engines, such as Google, Bing, and Yandex.
In this review, the one exception is Mojeek, which is a true crawler-based search engine with its own index (discussed below). There are also a few search engines that fall in the middle by deploying their own crawler, but also pulling results from other search engines.
Note: This list is not necessarily in rank order. Choose the best search engine for you based on your own threat model and unique needs.
Here are the best private search engines:
1. Swisscows – A Switzerland-based private search engine with zero tracking
Swisscows is a Switzerland-based private search engine that does very well with privacy and security. They promise no tracking or data collection, and even have a “Swiss Fort Knox” data center for their server infrastructure. From their website:
- have our own servers and do not work with cloud or third party!
- have our Datacenter in the Swiss Alps – THIS is the safest bunker in Europe!
- have positioned everything geographically outside of EU and US.
Family-Friendly content – One unique aspect of Swisscows is that they are passionate about family-friendly content. As they explain on their about page:
- We promote moral values.
- We hate violence and pornography.
- We promote digital media education.
While some people may not like the fact that Swisscows filters some adult content, others may see this as a great feature, especially those with children.
Because Swisscows does not pass on user data from search requests, they are unable to effectively monetize their service through ad partners, which means they largely rely on donations and sponsorships to maintain operations (sponsors can get a banner ad at the top of results):
2. MetaGer – An open source metasearch engine with great features
MetaGer is an open source metasearch engine based in Germany. It gets search results from Bing, Yandex, Yahoo and others, as well as having its own web crawler. This interesting project started in 1996. It is now operated by a non-profit foundation in Germany called SUMA-EV (Association for Free Access to Knowledge). I tested MetaGer for this guide and found the results to be good, with some nice features as well:
- Every search result shows the source it came from
- Search filter options (date, safe search, and language)
- Proxy viewing options “open anonymously”
- A new News/Politics results type
MetaGer does a good job of protecting your privacy, as they explain here. MetaGer converts search requests into anonymous queries through a proxy server, which also provides the “open anonymously” viewing option with all results. The service truncates your IP addresses to protect your privacy, although they do pass along user agent info to their search partners. MetaGer does not utilize cookies or any other tracking methods.
For operation stability and security, MetaGer does keep some logs on their own servers, but this data is kept no longer than 96 hours and is automatically erased. MetaGer finances operations from user donations, as well as ads that are served through partner networks, such as Bing. These ads appear at the top of the search results. However, you can get completely ad-free search results by signing up for an MetaGer membership. (Without memberships and personal donations, MetaGer states they would not be able to continue operations.)
MetaGer runs all of its infrastructure on servers in Germany, which is a good privacy jurisdiction with strict data protection laws. The service is completely open source. For those on the Tor network, MetaGer also hosts a .onion site.
You can read more about using MetaGer, as well as their apps, plugins, and features, on their website. We’ll close here with an interesting quote I found on their site (translated from German):
Did you know that according to the Patriot Act, all internet servers and search engines physically located in the jurisdiction of the United States are obligated to disclose any information to the intelligence services? Your personal data is at risk even if the servers and search engines don’t store any information: it is sufficient if the intelligence agencies read and store everything at the internet point of connection. All MetaGer servers are located in Germany.
Mobile apps: Android
3. Searx – An open source metasearch engine
Searx is an open source metasearch engine that gathers results from other search engines while simultaneously respecting your privacy. Even better, you control which search engines Searx pulls results from, as well as specifying the categories for search results.
Searx customizability comes in handy since Google has been known to block Searx requests. We haven’t seen a good solution to the problem, but you can avoid these kinds of problems by telling Searx to avoid Google (or any other source that causes problems).
Searx also allows you to run your own instance of the search engine. The drawback with your own instance, however, is that your search results won’t be mixed with other users. Searx is open source and available on GitHub.
Be careful if you use public instances!
Because Searx is open source and freely available for anyone to use, there are a number of different public instances you can utilize. However, just like with Tor nodes, anyone with bad intentions can set up a “rogue” instance and potentially log user activity, as Searx explains here:
What are the consequences of using public instances?
If someone uses a public instance, he/she has to trust the administrator of that instance. This means that the user of the public instance does not know whether his/her requests are logged, aggregated and sent or sold to a third party.
Unfortunately the Searx project doesn’t run an official public instance. They do recommend public instances run by various individuals or entities. But how do you know those instances aren’t logging your search results on their server? You don’t! For all we know a public instance might secretly run by the CIA, other domestic or foreign intel agencies, or just some creeps looking to steal your data. The only way to be sure is to run your own instance.
Jurisdiction: Not applicable (open source, not based in any one location)
Mobile apps: None
https://www.searx.me (gives info about the project and list of instances)
4. Qwant – A private search engine from France
Qwant is a private search engine based in France. Being based in Europe, it is held to data privacy protections that are much stricter than those in the United States and many other countries. Qwant promises to protect user privacy (no tracking) and keep people from getting stuck in the filter bubble.This is all good since Qwant primarily gets its search results from Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
Qwant is committed to protecting your privacy, and that’s at the heart of our philosophy. What you do with Qwant is your privacy and we don’t want to know about it. We don’t keep your search history and we don’t create an advertising profile to target you. With Qwant, you are of course entitled to the rights guaranteed by the European General Data Protection Regulation of April 27, 2016, known as the “GDPR”, but most importantly, we ensure maximum respect for the principles of data minimization and “privacy by design”, i.e., we implement design methods for our services that allow us to collect and process only the data that is strictly necessary. We never try to find out who you are or what you do personally when you use our search engine.
However, when Qwant does not have the answers to your queries, they will pass along pseudonymous data to Microsoft Ireland Operations Limited. Microsoft provides search results, along with “contextual advertising based on the keywords you entered and your geographic region.”
While the GDPR should protect your data from abuse by Microsoft, if you don’t want Microsoft to know what you are searching for online, you need to be aware that Qwant may share that information with Microsoft under certain circumstances.
Putting that aside, Qwant has good search filtering options. You can filter results by different categories (web, news, social, images, videos, and shopping) as well as by dates. The Qwant homepage includes news stories, trending people, events, and other interest stories. According to their website, Qwant serves 189 million results per month.
Overall, Qwant is a good option for a private search engine, with many features in place to protect user privacy.
Mobile apps: Android, iOS
5. DuckDuckGo – Popular private search engine based in the US
DuckDuckGo (a.k.a. DDG) is perhaps the most popular private search engine.It’s popularity has grown greatly since our last review. For many people, the first thing to do when installing a new web browser is to set its default search engine to DuckDuckGo.
Based in the United States (not the ideal location from a privacy perspective), DDG was started by Gabriel Weinberg in 2008. It generates search results from over 400 sources including Wikipedia, Bing, Yandex, and Yahoo. DuckDuckGo has a close partnership with Yahoo (now owned by Verizon), which helps it to better filter search results.
In my testing I found DDG to work well, with relevant search results quickly displayed for most tests. Search results for DuckDuckGo are primarily sourced from Bing.
To finance operations, DuckDuckGo generates money through advertisements and affiliate programs, which is explained here. Similar to Google and other search engines, DuckDuckGo will display ads at the top of your searches. DDG has partnered with Amazon and eBay as affiliates.
We also save searches, but again, not in a personally identifiable way, as we do not store IP addresses or unique User agent strings. We use aggregate, non-personal search data to improve things like misspellings.
While it would be great if DDG didn’t save any search information, saving this data without IP addresses or unique User agent strings should protect your privacy just fine.
The history of DuckDuckGo search
In researching the background DuckDuckGo, I uncovered some interesting history. The founder of DDG, Gabriel Weinberg, was also behind a social network called Names Database, which collected the real names and addresses of its users. He then sold Names Database (and all the user data) to Classmates.com for “approximately $10 million in cash” in March 2006.
DuckDuckGo was launched a few years later, in 2008 and was branded as a privacy search engine. It rose to popularity in 2013 following the Snowden revelations. DuckDuckGo remains one of the most popular private search engines to date and is well-regarded in the privacy community. Even if Mr. Weinberg were to sell DDG some day, assuming the company continued to follow existing policies on recording search data, there should be nothing to worry about.
Jurisdiction: United States
Mobile apps: Android, iOS
6. Mojeek – Crawler-based search engine with more privacy
Unlike some of the other private (meta)search engines, Mojeek is true search engine with its own crawler. According to the Mojeek blog, the service surpassed 4 billion pages indexed in June 2021. If you want complete search independence from the corporate data monoliths of Google and Bing, Mojeek offers an interesting proposition.
Mojeek doesn’t implement any kind of specific user tracking, whether that be at the time of visit or subsequently via standard logs, which Mojeek does keep. These logs contain the time of visit, page requested, possibly referral data, and located in a separate log browser information. IP addresses are not recorded, instead the IP address is replaced with a simple two letter code indicating the visitors country of origin. By doing this, Mojeek removes any possibility of tracking or identifying any particular user.
Hopefully Mojeek can continue to improve their search results and one day rival the big players.
Jurisdiction: United Kingdom
Mobile apps: Android, iOS
7. YaCy – The decentralized, open source, peer-to-peer search engine
YaCy is an open source private search engine created in 2004 by Michael Christen. It can run stand-alone or as part of a decentralized peer-to-peer network. Here is a brief description from YaCy’s website:
It is fully decentralized, all users of the search engine network are equal, the network does not store user search requests and it is not possible for anyone to censor the content of the shared index. We want to achieve freedom of information through a free, distributed web search which is powered by the world’s users.
With YaCy, there is no central server, which could be seized or tapped by authorities. Rather, all peers in the network are equal and can be used for crawling the web or in “proxy mode” to index pages for other users. To use YaCy, you need to download the free software on your operating system, available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. There is a demo portal here but it was down when we were doing this update.
Jurisdiction: Not applicable. (Being a decentralized and open-source platform, YaCy does not appear to fall under any particular jurisdiction, similar to Searx.)
Mobile apps: None
8. Brave Search – A new search engine from the makers of Brave browser
Although it is still in beta, Brave Search looks quite promising. It is brought to you by the makers of Brave, which is a secure browser with built-in privacy that runs on open-source Chromium. Unlike most of the other search engines in this guide, Brave is using its own search index, rather than relying on Bing or Google.
Here is a brief overview of the Brave Search project from their website:
Brave Search is the world’s most complete, independent, private search engine. By integrating Brave Search beta into its browser, Brave offers the first all-in-one browser / search alternative to the big tech platforms. Brave Search beta is also available in other browsers, at search.brave.com.
Given that Brave Search is relatively new, there is not a lot of information regarding the company’s policies and practices. However, there is this FAQ page that answers some questions. We are excited to see this project develop as it appears to be a strong alternative from a well-regarded organization. We’ll keep an eye on it as things progress.
Jurisdiction: United States
Mobile apps: Built into Brave Browser, with apps for Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Android, and iOS
9. Ecosia – The search engine that plants trees
Ecosia is unique on our list in that it donates a portion of profits to charity and is strictly focused on planting trees. It is based in Germany and claims to be a private search engine. However, some of the things it does make it unsuitable for our main list of truly private search engines.
One issue is that Ecosia collects all search queries and then anonymizes this data after seven days. Another is that they do a fair amount of data collecting through website analytics, including your IP address, browser agent, location, and more.
And one more thing…
Ecosia assigns a Bing tracking ID to every user:
Ecosia also assigns a “Bing Client ID” in order to improve the quality of the search results. This value is a user-specific ID which enables Bing to deliver more relevant search results also based on previous searches. The ID is saved in the Ecosia cookie and retrieved during future visits.
Does Ecosia meet the criteria to be a “private search engine”? Probably not, but it’s still a good alternative to the big search engines, with commendable charity goals.
- Not a “private search engine” by default
- Bing ID is assigned to users (but can be disabled)
- Search queries, with IP address, are saved for seven days
Mobile apps: Android, iOS
These search engines have ad-tech owners
Now let’s look at a few search engines that are at least partially owned by advertising companies.
Why is this important to understand?
Because the business model of advertising companies is to collect as much private data as possible. A “private” search engine could be a massive data collection tool in the wrong hands.
Can an ad-tech company be trusted to guard your personal data while running a “private” search engine?
Can a fox be trusted to guard a hen house?
Proceed with caution.
1. Search Encrypt – A search engine with some big red flags
Search Encrypt is another interesting search engine that claims to offer better privacy by default than DuckDuckGo. Like DuckDuckGo, Search Encrypt uses Bing for search results. Search Encrypt describes the following features on its website:
- Expiring browsing history: Encryption keys for your searches expire when you are done searching.
- End-to-end encryption: Searches are end-to-end encrypted using AES-256 and HTTPS/SSL encryption.
- Privacy-friendly maps search
- Privacy-friendly video search
Search Encrypt does not track search history in any user identifiable way.
Additionally, we store aggregated search data to improve product performance, but never store IP addresses or unique user identifiers in connection with such searches in order to ensure that none of the information collected in connection with your search activity is personally identifiable.
This is a pretty convoluted statement. Here are a few takeaways:
- “Aggregated search data” is being logged and stored.
- They claim to not store IP addresses “in connection with such searches” – but this does not mean that IP addresses are not getting logged and/or passed on to third parties. Rather, they are merely stating that IP addresses will not be associated with searches. Therefore it appears that IP addresses might be getting logged (another reason to use a VPN).
In circumstances where you have chosen to alter the default settings, then your personally identifiable information may be shared with third party site operators.
Lastly, it also appears that Search Encrypt may be operating out of the United States. From their Terms page:
Choice of Law and Venue.
This Agreement shall be interpreted and enforced in all respects under the laws of the State of Florida, United States as applicable to contracts to be performed entirely within Florida.
Who’s running the show?
Another question with Search Encrypt is that there isn’t much information about the company. The contact page shows an address in Cyprus and the legal venue is Florida (United States). The developer for the Search Encrypt Firefox extension (no longer listed) is “SearchIncognito” – with a history of other “private search” extensions:
How does Search Encrypt make money?
Like some other private search engines, Search Encrypt makes money through affiliates, as they explain here:
In some circumstances, we may append an affiliate code to certain sites linked to our Search Encrypt product, either directly or through search results delivered to you. In doing so, we may collect a small commission in connection with your activity, but do not pass any of your personally identifiable information to any such third party sites.
This of course could be quite profitable with the right deals and enough users. DuckDuckGo also utilizes affiliates with Amazon and eBay for revenue, in addition to advertisements. (We’ll explain more about how private search engines make money below.)
I reached out to Search Encrypt asking for additional clarification on their data collection and user privacy policies. My emails were not answered.
- IP address and other data may be collected
- Data may be shared with third parties if you modify default settings
- Runs on Amazon servers in the US
- Non-transparent company
Jurisdiction: Contact address is in Cyprus, legal venue is in the United States (owners in China? below)
Update: My suspicions proved to be warranted. An article on Medium has revealed that “Search Encrypt” is basically a Chinese data collection tool for advertising companies.
2. GhostPeek – A clone of Search Encrypt?
It appears that a carbon copy of Search Encrypt has been unveiled, which they are calling “Ghost Peek” and claim to be another “private search engine”.
Someone on reddit did some digging and found the same pattern and ties to China that we saw above with “Search Encrypt”
Ghostpeek, the supposedly “private” search engine, is run by a sketchy shell corporation, which in turn is owned by a personal and mobile data aggregator based in China
3. Startpage – Acquired by a US ad-tech company in 2019
Startpage was previously one of my top recommendations for private search engines. However, news surfaced in October 2019 that Startpage was at least partially acquired by System1 and the Privacy One Group. As described in my article on Startpage and System1, there are some remaining concerns:
- The fact that System1 has acquired a large stake in Startpage.
- The history and business model of System1, which includes gathering “as much data as possible” and profiling users.
- The board of directors change at Surfboard Holding BV (parent company of Startpage), to appoint the System1 co-founder and an outside investor.
- The long delay in alerting the public to these changes.
- The contradictory business models of System1 and a private search engine.
Choosing the best private search engine is largely about trust, and only you can decide who to trust. But given the history of System1, I would be very cautious.
Jurisdiction: Netherlands (officially, but at least partially owned by a US company)
Private search engine FAQs
Here are some FAQs (frequently asked questions) with regards to private search engines:
- How do private search engines make money?
- Are US-based search engines safe?
- How to keep your searches private
- Considerations when choosing a private search engine
How do private search engines make money?
Private search engines make money in three ways: contextual advertisements, affiliates, and donations. Let’s examine each of these revenue streams on their own.
1. Contextual advertisements
Just like with Google and Bing, many private search engines make money by placing advertisements in the search results, usually based on the search terms you entered. The difference between private search engines and Google or Bing is that private search engines should only be serving ads based on your search term, rather than from all other data collection sources (email, browsing, etc.).
Note: Some private search engines pass a truncated (anonymized) version of your IP address to the search partner, in order to serve relevant ads for your general location.
2. Affiliate revenue
Many private search engines make money through affiliate programs. DuckDuckGo is an example of this; they are a member of both the Amazon and eBay affiliate programs:
DuckDuckGo is part of the affiliate programs of the eCommerce websites Amazon and eBay. When you visit those sites through DuckDuckGo, including when using !bangs, and subsequently make a purchase, we receive a small commission.
You may also see “online shopping” options above your search results, which are another form of affiliate revenue. Both Qwant and DuckDuckGo use affiliate “shopping” results as sources of income.
Note: When you buy something through an affiliate link, it never increases the price you pay. Rather, it simply transfers a small percentage of the profits (i.e. a commission) to the affiliate, which in this case is the private search engine.
Private search engines may also make money from donations. Anybody can donate to the project, regardless of whether it is an individual developer, a non-profit organization, or a private for-profit business.
If a search engine does not have other sources of revenue or good advertising deals with partners, donations become very important to ensure continued operations. For example, Swisscows, MetaGer, and YaCy all have donation options.
Are US-based search engines safe?
Choosing a private search engine is all based on your unique needs and threat model. Therefore a private search engine that Bob considers to be safe, may not be adequate for Alice.
With regards to US-based search engines, and any other US businesses that handles (or has potential access) to private data, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- The United States has extensive surveillance programs, which are carried out by various branches of government, such as the NSA.
- The US has a long history of working with (and forcing) private tech companies to facilitate bulk data collection efforts – see the PRISM program for details. (This raises questions about private search engines that are being hosted on Amazon infrastructure, a large US-based company.)
- US companies could be served National Security Letters or other lawful data collection demands, while also being prohibited from disclosing this due to gag orders.
These laws and capabilities essentially give the US government the authority to compel a legitimate privacy-focused company to function as a data collection tool for state agencies.
If a privacy-focused business were to be compromised, it would likely happen behind closed doors, without a word (or warning) to the users. This was the case with Lavabit, and rather than comply with the data requests, the founder was basically forced to shut down the business.
As a general rule, RestorePrivacy does not recommend services that are based in the US. Nonetheless, it all depends on your threat model and how much privacy and security you need.
How to keep your searches private
Here are five basic tips for keeping your searches (and data in general) more private.
1. Use a private search engine
Using one of the private search engines in this guide will help keep your data safe from third parties. See the reviews to determine which private search engine best suits your needs.
2. Use a private and secure browser
Just like with search engines, your browser can also reveal lots of private information about you to third parties:
- Browsing history: all the websites you visit
- Login credentials: usernames and passwords
- Cookies and trackers: these are placed on your browser by the sites you visit
- Autofill information: names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.
- Metadata, which can be used for tracking and identification (browser fingerprinting)
Many of the private search engines in this guide offer browser extensions to replace the default search engine for your browser. DuckDuckGo has even become listed as an alternative search engine for browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome.
See our guide on secure browsers here.
3. Use a good VPN service
If you use a good VPN service, you won’t have to worry about search engines logging your IP address and location. A VPN will encrypt your traffic for safe transit across the internet, while also replacing your IP address and location with that of the VPN server you’re connected to. There are many other uses for VPN services and they are an important privacy tool, especially since internet providers in many countries are now collecting browsing history.
Below are my top VPN recommendations:
4. Use a good ad blocker
A reliable ad blocker is another important privacy tool since ads have become a major threat to your privacy. Many ads now quietly collect data for third-party advertising networks. Other ads (known as malvertising), actually install malware on your computer or mobile device. The best thing to do these days is to simply block ads and tracking networks.
There are of course many other privacy tools to consider. However, a good private search engine, a secure browser, a reliable VPN, and a safe ad blocker are the top priorities for basic digital self defense.
5. Log out!
Lastly, whenever possible, stay logged out of Big Tech accounts (Gmail, YouTube, Amazon, etc.) when surfing the web, since their trackers will record your browsing activity and link this to your data profile.
Another option is to use one browser for staying logged into various accounts, but then use a separate browser for general browsing activity (this is known as browser compartmentalization).
Considerations when choosing a private search engine
Here are some things to consider when looking for the best search engine for privacy:
- Search results – Some search engines may do well in the privacy category, but they don’t return very good results.
- Privacy – Consider what information the search engine is logging, as well as the data that may be passed off to third parties and search partners (such as Bing).
- Jurisdiction – Jurisdiction is an important factor to consider because it ultimately affects your data and privacy. Services based in the US, for example, are subject to the Patriot Act, National Security Letters, and may also be forced to collect user data without being allowed to disclose anything (due to gag orders).
- Features – Some private search engines offer useful features, such as anonymous viewing (via proxy servers), search result filtering options, plugins, extensions, and more.
- Mobile apps – More than a year ago, Google reported that they process more search requests from mobile devices than they do from desktops. We live on our mobile devices, so a search engine that offers a mobile app for your specific device could be a big benefit.
- Trust – Trust is difficult to quantify and measure, but it’s a very important consideration. When considering the trust factor, you may want to look at the history of the company and the individuals behind it.
Finding the best search engine for your needs is a subjective process, and there’s no single “best private search engine” that applies to everyone. Check out our reviews, the test drive a few different options to find the best fit for you.
This private search engines guide was last updated on August 31, 2021.